Space tourism: The Right Stuff for the right travel pros

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In these challenging first years of the 21st century, most travel professionals are too busy coping with the industry's ever-shifting revenue models to be paying much notice to space tourism.

As for potential passengers, the U.S. government's dwindling interest in space travel since first planting a flag on the moon in 1969 has resigned most Americans to the notion that commercial space travel will never be a reality in their lifetimes.

But it turns out the industry and the traveling public are both about to get a wake-up call.

In the last year, entrepreneurial commercial enterprises have snatched a ball that since the days of Sputnik have been carried by a handful of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nations. In a matter of a few months, they have begun generating crucial momentum for establishing a fledgling space-travel industry.

That promises to eventually be very good for business. The day is already at hand when a small but widening circle of travel agents is poised to seize rapidly growing space-travel opportunities.

Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) already lists 24 space tourism companies. But in reality, there are just four players with advanced business plans, and only two of those are already selling seats on spacecraft:

" Space Adventures Ltd.: This is the early pioneer of the industry, and its products are the real deal: a complete astronaut experience, including more than a week in orbit. Unlike the independent commercial startups, its business model is built around thumbing rides on flights already scheduled by the Russian Space Agency. Despite a $20 million price tag, Space Adventures is currently preparing to launch its fifth space tourist.

" Virgin Galactic: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire of travel and entertainment enterprises, is diving headlong into space tourism. His new company, Virgin Galactic, earlier this year named Virtuoso as its exclusive network of space agents in the U.S., and 117 Virtuoso members have already applied. Virgin plans to vet the list in January and choose 50 for training, beginning next March, in preparation for the company's first suborbital flights in late 2008.

" Blue Origin: A space travel company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is building a spaceport facility on a 165,000-acre spread in west Texas.

" AERA Corp.: This private space tourism firm, based in Temecula, N.M., plans to launch civilians on suborbital flights from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Base through an agreement with the Pentagon.

"Space tourism is already definitely a part of the business reality of our consultants," said Mark Belles, executive vice president of global sales and service for Virtuoso. "With Virgin Galactic's announcement that it will be sending people up into space in late 2008, we already have a queue of member consultants and a list of clients and prospects."

Moreover, Virgin Galactic has taken deposits from 200 customers for those first suborbital flights in 2008, according to Carolyn Wincer, head of astro sales for Virgin Galactic.

The flights are priced at $200,000, and while the Virgin package is a suborbital joyride compared with the full orbital treks offered by Space Adventures, Virgin's price is a mere 1% of Space Adventures' $20 million ticket price.

That kind of price reduction is essential to meet Branson's goal for Virgin Galactic of bringing space travel to the masses. Until now, Space Adventures' customers have comprised a highly elite corps of extremely wealthy individuals. 

For example, the passenger who returned from its most recent trip in September was Anousheh Ansari, a wealthy Iranian technology entrepreneur. Ansari, Space Adventures' first female customer, was also the sponsor of the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first nongovernment organization to launch a reusable, manned spacecraft twice within two weeks.

Space Adventures' next passenger is slated to be Charles Simonyi, the Hungarian-born billionaire software engineer responsible for developing Microsoft Word and Excel. Like Ansari, Simonyi will hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket scheduled to service the International Space Station.

Such flights are possible every six months, when the Russian Space Agency launches a replacement crew to the ISS, leaving room for one extra passenger. Space Adventures sells the seat, and the $20 million price tag helps to fund the U.S./Russia space program.

As the ultimate in high-end travel products, it also whets the appetite of the incipient space-tourism industry.

The anticipated price collapse lends credence  to the assertion of Space Adventures' president, Eric Anderson, that the company's products will rapidly grow beyond the ultimate amusement-park ride for the super rich.

"Every time we change history it starts this way," Anderson said. "The first computers were very expensive, the first automobiles, airplanes."

Today's billionaire passengers, he said, "are paving the way for the rest of us."

Paradoxically, it was the budget-busting space programs of the U.S. and Russia in the late '60s and early '70s that generated the very technology that today is enabling consumer space flights.

For example, the first computers built in the late 1940s and 1950s were room-sized assemblages of finicky vacuum tubes and cables that cost millions of dollars, broke down frequently and required constant maintenance. But the integrated circuits developed for the U.S. space program quickly gave rise to Moore's Law, a Silicon Valley axiom, which predicts that the processing power embedded in a given volume of silicon will double every 12 to 18 months.

As a result, today's average cell phone boasts far more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer that landed astronauts on the moon in the 1970s. And according to the BBC's archives, the first digital watch, produced by Hamilton in 1972, sold for $2,150; superior digital watches now can be had for less than $5.

Whatever the Moore's Law of commercial aerospace technology eventually might prove to be, space tourism has developed much more rapidly than anyone had expected as recently as a few years ago. 

A major driver of that development was the X Prize, which was intended to spur civilian space flight in much the same way that prizes were used to spur commercial aviation in the early 20th century. The winning ship had to carry a pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers to an altitude of 62 statue miles, the internationally recognized boundary where the Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins.

The prize was snagged on Oct. 4, 2004, by SpaceShipOne, a suborbital craft piloted by Brian Binnie, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures, designed by the renowned aerospace innovator Bert Rutan and constructed by Rutan's company, Scaled Composites.

SpaceShipOne was carried to an altitude of 35,000 feet by White Knight, a jet aircraft slightly larger than a Boeing 757, then continued its ascent under its own rocket power. It succeeded in making two trips into space within seven days, reaching an altitude of 71.5 miles.

Branson was watching the progress closely. Even before SpaceShipOne actually took the X Prize, he had cut a deal with Allen to license the technology for his newly created Virgin Galactic.

Now, Branson is investing $250 million to develop SpaceShipTwo, a more ambitious version of the craft that won the X Prize. Fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, it will carry two pilots and six passengers into suborbital space and back to its point of departure. It will be carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo, an improved version of White Knight.

SpaceShipTwo is not just bigger than its predecessor, however. It also incorporates many extra technologies and design elements to ensure passenger safety and comfort.

The new versions of both craft are already under construction at the Scaled Composites facility in the Mojave Spaceport in California, where they are scheduled for completion in late 2007. Following testing, commercial flights are projected to begin in late 2008 or early 2009 from Virgin's new Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The First Space Tourists

Branson's business plan is as ambitious as his technology: In the first year, Virgin Galactic plans to carry about 500 people into space and back. Despite the inroads made by Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures, many see these early suborbital flights by independent commercial ventures as heralding the real dawn of space tourism.

"Space Adventures has been around awhile," said Virgin Galactic's Wincer. "They make it possible for people to go with the Russian space program. They're not a space tour operator; they just facilitate it. There isn't anyone operating space tourism. It hasn't been technologically possible."

But, she added that "when SpaceShipOne won the X Prize, it all changed."

Space Adventures got the jump on competitors through a public-private partnership with the Russian and U.S. space programs. Although Space Adventures does not actually plan or operate trips into space, that partnership has enabled Space Adventures to offer products far beyond anything available from the private sector in the near future.

The differences come down to orbital vs. suborbital experiences.

The $20 million product offered by Space Adventures, which sent its first tourist into orbit in 2001, is eight to 10 days of continuous weightlessness in Earth orbit. The trip includes the experiences of docking the Soyuz craft with the ISS, then living and working aboard the space station with its crew of astronauts and cosmonauts.

Virgin Galactic's $200,000 suborbital flights, in contrast, will offer six passengers about seven minutes of black-sky space flight and about four minutes of weightlessness. In all, the price covers a three-day package that includes hotel, training and transportation to and from the spaceport, all conjured with a focus on personal luxury.

Both companies have ambitious plans for evolving well beyond their initial products. Virgin has announced that it intends to leverage the experience it gains in suborbital flights to expand into low-orbit products and ultimately to create the world's first spaceline carrier, using suborbital space flights to get passengers from any point on the planet to any other point in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

For its part, Space Adventures announced in August that it was working on a lunar program -- a "slingshot around the moon" in the words of Stacy Tearne, the company's vice president of operations -- "using the Soyuz Russian rocket, which will be revamped to be able to fly to the moon."

"It's not a lunar surface mission," Tearne noted. "It's a circumlunar mission."

Two commercial seats will be available on the lunar trip, Tearne said, at a $100 million each.

Space Adventures said it also had more than 200 reservations for a suborbital product priced at $102,000, and zero-gravity flights in NASA training jets for as low as $3,750. The company already offers zero-gravity flights out of Fort Lauderdale and Russia.

Space Agents

Even at the lowest of those prices, of course, there is enormous opportunity for travel professionals to earn plum commissions and consulting fees.

"Space tourism is a reality," said Cathy Holler, Virtuoso's managing director of destination sales. "Now that a private company has been able to send a rocket into space, it is coming. It has been $20 million to go to space. It's a very different experience to what you get at $200,000. But people will find a way, because it's a dream."

And entrepreneurs are gambling that space tourism will evolve into a dream business.

Branson has already ordered five spaceships and two mother ships based on the original design.

"The construction is well under way," Wincer said. "We'll be rolling out the first in fall 2007. Everything is on track. People will see the rollout and say, 'Oh my God! It's not a lot of hot air. It's really happening!' "

Virgin will conduct test flights for 12 to 18 months, with passenger flights commencing "only when they are confident in the technology and the safety," Wincer said. "Richard [Branson] is going on the first flight with his family. Once that has happened, we'll start carrying fare-paying passengers. We already have 200 deposits."

As the first totally independent commercial space travel venture, Virgin Galactic is moving the bar significantly.

"These are the first private ventures," said Virtuoso's Holler. "The spaceship has gone up and come back. It's been the catalyst for the opportunity for personal space flight. It's more affordable. We're taking it from the governmental space-exploration environment to the commercial space-tourism environment."

As Virgin took its first step into space travel, the company was acutely conscious that it was laying the foundation of a new industry. As a pioneer in a new market, the company could have employed the flashiest cutting-edge technologies for booking, perhaps kiosks in malls with virtual order-takers.

Instead it chose high-touch over high-tech.

"We recognized we were creating an industry from scratch," said Wincer, who was charged with handling sales of the new product. "We had a unique opportunity to figure out how to distribute to clients." 

She said she instinctively knew exactly which direction to take.

"I come from a travel industry background," Wincer said. "I started working as a travel agent as a teenager. I realized we needed to work with travel agents. We wanted them involved. When you book space travel, you're going to want to talk to someone. It's unusual, like in the old days when travel was a glamorous thing to do."

At the same time, she said, "We realized you can't just pay everyone travel agent commission. If you let everyone sell the product, and the product is unique, you lose quality control. You lose the ability to know what is communicated to customers. So we flipped everything the other way. We're going to go to each location looking for space agents."

When Virgin started setting up its sales organization, it approached Virtuoso, a consortium that had worked with Virgin on both its airline ticket sales and its Virgin Limited Edition hotels and resorts.

Virgin solicited proposals from individual applicants explaining why they thought they had the right client base for space tourism, why they wanted to get into the field and how they would go about promoting it.

"We're choosing people who are really passionate partners in making it happen," Wincer said. "The network will grow."

Virtuoso's Belles said his members were clearly the right professionals for the job.

"We pride ourselves on our sales force of consultants, the best sales force in world for experiential travel," Belles said. "One of the reasons Virgin sought us out to get into the market in the U.S. is the history of our sales force being able to sell experiential travel to clients.

"Our agents do a fantastic job of matching clients to unique experiences, whether renting Richard Branson's private island for multigenerational travel or space travel. We have a proven history."

Holler added: "One of the exciting things for Virtuoso is having the opportunity, being charged with helping to set up a new tourism product. How do we manage the relationship? We're setting the standards for the future companies that go into this business. We'll do it professionally and ensure that the first generation of space tourism will be done correctly.

"We're carving a new territory, a new frontier."

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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